I’ve always been bothered by the willingness of perfectly nice people to take a shot at the city I grew up in. Even though I hadn’t been home since my mom died exactly a decade ago I still describe myself as a proud Winnipeger. After her death, I just didn’t have the heart to go back, but finally admitted that I was lonesome for the dear friends who are still there. Besides, a milestone alumni reunion was looming, so, even though Jon was working, I went alone.
Just what I feared happened: I fell back in love with Canada’s best city.
Are you aware of the number of super-smart Canadians who come from Winnipeg or even, if they are lucky, still live there? It’s a large number in fact. In my own limited circle I am aware of
a Nobel Prize short-lister,
a writer of very successful history books ,
a professional NHL goalie,
a multitude of rock stars,
a wildly successful entrepreneur now in Britain,
a pair of Stratford directors,
an accomplished commodities trader,
a career economist who has developed global agricultural policies,
a poet/novelist who was short-listed by Norton,
a director of a theatre troupe which develops its own productions around the issues of social justice,
a talented print journalist,
and a host of outstanding professors, teachers, social workers, nurses — to whom we owe our thanks for a thriving and beautiful city.
And I’m just getting warmed up.
So there’s never a shortage of accomplished people to spend time with, even at the beach - which is not much more than an hour away. To gild the lily a bit more, Victoria Beach (car-free and beautiful) has a world class waterfront of white sand cliffs. The dinner parties I attended there and in the city were just as I remembered — lively conversations that reflect that Winnipeg combination of intelligence, warmth, and good food. As a houseguest, I was treated like a princess. And although Eleanor, one of my favourite people, is struggling with advanced age, she too graciously invited me over for tea and “dainties” (which, in Winnipeg, means sweets, not underwear, don’t you know).
Lest you think that we all cowered inside so as to avoid the climate, let me hasten to assure you that no such thing occurs. For one thing, they had a far better summer than the humidified drought we endured in southern Ontario this year. During my visit the sun shone all day every day and the skies were a clear deep blue. It was perfect weather to tour the zoo, visit the sculpture garden, wander the gardens in Assiniboine Park or explore the Exchange District.
And I arrived to find the autumnal city bustling with energy and beautiful new buildings. Not that they can improve on the early ones. Did you know that in the 1890’s, when my grandfather and his brothers owned a fine-woodworking shop just down from Eaton’s, linear frontage on Donald was more expensive than its Chicago counterpart? The major buildings from that period were invariably built of Tyndall stone, which is creamy and cut in huge slabs; I spent my childhood reading the fossil record while waiting for the bus.
Lack of time this year meant that I couldn't fit in the symphony, the theatre, or the ballet -- all of which I attended regularly even as a teenager. Growing up in Winnipeg meant acquiring culture whether you wanted it or not. In fact, Winnipeg hosts what was and may still be the biggest music festival in the world. ALL of us sang, played piano, or were part of an orchestra - sometimes simultaneously. I grew up assuming that "going to the festival" was a fact of life everywhere, in the same category as death and taxes. One of my worst memories is of accompanying the school orchestra and missing a repeat; the various strings went one way and I went another....in a concert hall filled to overflowing, including one mother who was beet red.
Returning to happier thoughts, the best surprise of this visit was to realize that the famous Winnipeg elms had survived. When Dutch Elm Disease arrived forty-five years ago, Winnipegers rallied to save our miles of Gothic-arched boulevards; I believe it is the only city to have succeeded on that scale. In fact, the mental image that I carried with me for the last decade actually fell short of the real thing. So, having walked for hours to take hundreds of street shots, I am planning to paint a boulevard of elms if I ever get ten minutes. In the meantime I leave you with a large painting of a street in Lorne Park, near here. It’s nice but when you eventually see its prairie counterpart, you will say — “Wow! That’s so gorgeous, it's gotta be Winnipeg!!”